- Associated Press - Friday, October 3, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The sour ending to last year chased Nebraska into the offseason. Despite a breakout performance for the men’s basketball team, all the Cornhuskers can remember is March.

“As far as we look at it,” Shavon Shields said, “we didn’t really do anything last year.”

This is the mindset for the Huskers heading into their first preseason practice on Sunday, and coach Tim Miles likes it.

“They want to win,” he said, “and they have an appetite for work.”

It would have been easy for his players to bask in the glow of their fourth-place finish in the Big Ten - following wins in eight of their last nine regular-season games - and the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998.

They played to capacity crowds in their first year at Pinnacle Bank Arena and beat two top-10 opponents in Michigan State and Wisconsin.

But some of the joy was sucked out of the season when they blew an 18-point lead against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament opener, and then lost to Baylor by 14 in the NCAAs.

“We lost our momentum like that,” Miles said, snapping his fingers, “so I think they remember that part more than they remember all the accolades that went with their great run to end the Big Ten season.”

Nebraska is picked as high as second in the Big Ten and 11th nationally in preseason publications. The Huskers also are in line for their first preseason ranking, and second ever, since they were No. 25 to start 1992-93.

The hype is understandable. The Huskers return almost everybody from last season’s 19-win team, including Big Ten scoring leader Terran Petteway. Senior center Moses Abraham, a transfer from Georgetown, is among an intriguing group of newcomers that also includes promising freshmen in point guard Tarin Smith and forward-center Jake Hammond.

Among the key concerns entering practice are strengthening the center spot and identifying a true point guard.

Walter Pitchford creates matchup problems at center because of his 3-point shooting ability, but the 6-foot-10, 237-pound junior doesn’t play big in the post. The 6-9, 252-pound Abraham was a strong defensive presence in the middle for Georgetown but not much of an offensive threat. Hammond was a force in the middle at Comanche (Okla.) High, but how his game transfers to the Big Ten is unknown.

Defensive specialist Benny Parker played the most minutes at the point after Tai Webster began struggling last season. Webster returned to school with more confidence, Miles said, after he started all six games for New Zealand in the FIBA World Cup.

Parker and Webster will compete for minutes with Smith, who was a two-year starter at powerhouse St. Anthony High in Jersey City, N.J. Miles said Smith’s minutes will depend on how quickly he picks up the defensive system. The coach, however, has no doubts about Smith’s athleticism.

“The other day he went down the lane in one of our workouts and jumped off the wrong foot, the left foot, and dunked it left-handed over Moses or Walter,” Miles said. “You’re like, ‘What just happened?’”

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